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Lyft, Uber drivers find financial success with strategic investment

Jason Pease sells real estate and drives for Uber and Lyft to make extra money. Photo by Fiona Montagne.

Editor’s note: This is the final installment in a four-part series on the gig economy. 

Monday through Wednesday, Jason Pease’s day starts at 3 a.m.

Pease hits the road in the dark in his 2015 Toyota Prius, listening for the tell-tale notification that comes from the iPad set up on the dash, signaling someone wants a ride.

The Boise resident is a driver for ride-hailing apps Uber and Lyft. He runs both apps on a split screen — Uber on the left, Lyft on the right — to increase his number of ride requests, turning off one app when he accepts a request from the other. He is not picky about which app he drives for; both apps take a portion of the proceeds from each ride and may provide special pricing or bonuses for drivers depending on factors such as location or time of day. He ensures he is profitable through calculated investment.

“You have to be very strategic because Lyft and Uber have cut down to the drivers so much. They’re nickel and diming the drivers, causing the drivers to have to figure out a way to survive,” Pease says. “I’ve done well because I’m strategic, but a lot of drivers don’t.”

A typical day for Pease includes ferrying plenty of travelers to the airport interspersed with taking people to work mid-morning and giving rides to diners in the early evening. On the weekend, he works nights and gives a lot of rides to and from downtown destinations.

Another Gig

Pease explains that he uses his driving as a means to support his other business ventures.

Eventually, Pease plans to establish a nonprofit that helps people who have criminal backgrounds find employment. This stems from his days working as a manager in retail, when he met and hired several people with criminal backgrounds who had trouble finding work.

Additionally, Pease recently started a career selling real estate. Driving allows him to continue to make a living to support his family while building a clientele, also through driving. For example, Pease says he regularly picks up passengers at the Boise Airport who traveled to look at homes in the Treasure Valley.

Pease says it is fairly common for ride-hail drivers to have another venture, citing people he knows who pass along business cards or booklets to passengers for things like homemade jewelry, garage clean-outs or carpet cleaning.

“I think to be successful at Lyft and Uber you have to use it as a platform for other things,” Pease says. “You can’t just rely on driving the miles to make it work.”

Take-Home Pay

Since going public this spring, both Uber and Lyft have had muted performances on the stock market and continue to trade below their IPO price. Uber’s May 10 IPO drew the attention of many drivers, who have highlighted issues associated with driving for the company, including pay. Despite driver protests in places such as Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Washington and London, there appeared to be plenty of drivers working that day.

Uber and Lyft are vague on how much a driver can make from each ride, citing factors such as time of day, distance of the trip, how long it will take to get to the destination and other fees that accumulate. And, of course, tips depend on a passenger’s generosity.

Each company calculates fees a little differently.

Uber advertises on its website a 25% service fee on all rides, though a Ridester.com investigation revealed how other fees, like a “surge variable” for when demand outpaces supply, can increase the percentage of Uber’s take.

Lyft’s website explains that the company charges a fixed service fee and a variable platform fee that includes charges for things like tips, tolls, airport fees and taxes. This platform fee also affects the percentage Lyft takes from each total fare.

Ask ride-hail drivers how they make money and they’ll tell you that take-home pay is affected not only by tips and fees, but the costs associated with start-up and ongoing operations.

The amount of money a new driver must pay to get started, and the ongoing costs, depend on several variables. This includes the type and age of the vehicle, cost of insurance, gas mileage, maintenance and repairs.

Staying in the black

Pease decided to drive full-time in November 2018, after a year of driving part-time. At the time, he was only driving for Lyft, but has now expanded to Uber and Uber Eats as well. He makes around $1,000 per week before setting aside money for taxes and expenses and attributes his success to attention to investment.

When he started driving, Pease was picking up passengers in a minivan. In February, Pease sold his minivan and used the proceeds to buy a Prius, which gets significantly better gas mileage and increases his take-home pay.

“There’s not a chance in the world I would drive a Prius if not for this,” Pease says.

Like other drivers, Pease optimizes with a close attention to cleanliness; he vacuums regularly and pays a local car wash a monthly fee for unlimited use. He promotes his services on various social media platforms, runs a YouTube channel and carefully tracks the miles he drives on another app for tax reporting.

In addition to the iPad on the dash, he has a camera in the car. It’s a safety thing, Pease says, and becoming more common for drivers to include in their cars. If he is ever driving a group that is “getting too rowdy,” he casually mentions the camera, which helps things settle down.

Shann Payden of Boise also invested in a dash camera when she started driving for Uber, along with auxiliary cables, WeatherTech floor mats and onboard Wi-Fi.

 Payden has been driving nights for Uber since February, when she was looking for an opportunity to earn extra money. She decided to give it a try the week of Valentine’s Day and loved it.

“It was awesome,” Payden says.

Payden found it to be profitable and fun as a ride-hail driver. However, after two weeks of driving she discovered that as of March 1, her 2004 Ford Expedition was too old for the company. Uber does not allow vehicles older than 15 years.

In order to keep driving, Payden decided to buy a new car, a 2017 Dodge Grand Caravan, which was large enough for groups and could comfortably fit luggage for those traveling to and from the airport.

On top of a monthly car payment, Payden also pays for gas, special insurance for ride-hail drivers, vehicle maintenance and daily auto detailing.

Payden has given around 700 rides so far and enjoys it, though driving does not come without other, non-monetary costs. She says the app is not always accurate in pinpointing a passenger’s location, which sometimes leads to cancellations and frustrated riders. She occasionally gets propositioned by passengers, and about once a week she has to pull over so a drunk person can throw up (they’ve always made it outside the vehicle before it happens, she notes).

But most of the time, she says she enjoys great conversations with good people. Her favorite trips are taking groups to and from the airport or events. She also feels responsible for the people she drives.

“My joke is, ‘I’m saving lives and preventing DUIs,’” she says.

Smaller Investment

As a hydraulic cylinder mechanic, 23-year-old Kolton Smith of Boise says he doesn’t necessarily need the money he makes from Uber, but enjoys driving people around on weekends and the extra cash that comes with it. After a night of driving, he usually takes home around $200.

“Right now, it’s a lot of fun driving around picking people up, not too stressful,” Smith says.

Smith sees his investment into ride-hail driving as fairly minimal because he drives a few nights a month. He does not track mileage very closely, but estimates that he uses 10-20 gallons of gas per night driving people in his 2017 Ford Escape. All oil changes were included by the dealership when he purchased the vehicle, so his remaining costs are more down-the-road things, like depreciation and repairs.

Sometimes, being a ride-hail driver requires a little more effort than monetary investment. For example, Smith once picked up a passenger who was laying on the sidewalk, apparently drunk, by the time he pulled up. The man on the sidewalk didn’t know where he was, Smith explains. He picked him up off the ground and discovered the man’s phone underneath him, still on a call with his wife. Smith picked up the phone, explained who he was and kept the call connected as he drove the man home.

“It was my good deed for the night,” Smith adds.

His good deed may have had another effect than getting a drunk person home to his wife. The next day, around 5 p.m., Smith received a notification from Uber that the man sent him a tip.

Not feeling chatty? Uber now offers ‘Quiet Mode’

While many ride-share customers enjoy socializing with their drivers, Uber is offering a new feature for those who want some privacy.

Earlier this month, Uber rolled out “Quiet Mode” for Uber Black and Uber Black SUV, along with other new services such as luggage help, extended pickup periods  and vehicle temperature control.

In a press release, the company touted “Quiet Mode” as a convenience if “you need to respond to emails or are in the mood for a nap.”

The option, which officially launched around the country May 15, has drawn controversy. The Washington Post reported that some critics on Twitter are calling the option dehumanizing and “incredibly rude.”

“You’re paying for a human service, and drivers don’t stop being human just because you’re in a mood,” one Twitter commentator said.

Others lauded “Quiet Mode” as a valuable service for those with hearing impairments on anxiety.

About Lis Stewart